Curiosity about nuns and their distinctive clothing is almost as old as Catholicism itself. The habit intrigues the religious and the nonreligious alike, from medieval maidens to contemporary schoolboys, to feminists and other social critics. The first book to explore the symbolism of this attire, The Habit presents a visual gallery of the diverse forms of religious clothing and explains the principles and traditions that inspired them. More than just an eye-opening study of the symbolic significance of starched wimples, dark dresses, and flowing veils, The Habit is an incisive, engaging portrait of the roles nuns have and do play in the Catholic Church and in ministering to the needs of society.
From the clothing seen in an eleventh-century monastery to the garb worn by nuns on picket lines during the 1960s, habits have always been designed to convey a specific image or ideal. The habits of the Benedictines and the Dominicans, for example, were specifically created to distinguish women who consecrated their lives to God; other habits reflected the sisters' desire to blend in among the people they served. The brown Carmelite habit was rarely seen outside the monastery wall, while the Flying Nun turned the white winged cornette of the Daughters of Charity into a universally recognized icon. And when many religious abandoned habits in the 1960s and '70s, it stirred a debate that continues today.
Drawing on archival research and personal interviews with nuns all over the United States, Elizabeth Kuhns examines some of the gender and identity issues behind the controversy and brings to light the paradoxes the habit represents. For some, it epitomizes oppression and obsolescence; for others, it embodies the ultimate beauty and dignity of the vocation.
Complete with extraordinary photographs, including images of the nineteenth century nuns' silk bonnets to the simple gray dresses of the Sisters of Social Service, this evocative narrative explores the timeless symbolism of the habit and traces its evolution as a visual reflection of the changes in society.
About the Author
Elizabeth Kuhns writes on Catholic traditions for a variety of publications. She is a regular contributor to Faith & Family: The Magazine of Catholic Living, and has previously worked for the Book-of-the-Month Club and the New Hampshire Humanities Council.
"…Kuhns does a workman-like job of taking readers back to the habit's early origins, through its myriad medieval variations and up to its conflicted present."
"The author evenhandedly offers historical context and careful explanations . . . This readable overview is recommended for public and academic libraries."
"A revelatory work that 'opens the nun’s closet doors for the first time,' then scans the contents for all their historical and symbolic associations."
"…the door to the sister's closet has swung open..."
"…Elizabeth Kuhns' book about the history and culture of the habit is a sheer delight, wonderfully informative…."
--The Catholic Review
"An original, informative and engaging work…."
--The Catholic Advocate
"Fascinating details fill the book…."
--Our Sunday Visitor
"A welcome and important contribution to the literature on a sensitive subject that often inspires more heat than light."
--Margaret Susan Thompson, Professor of History, Syracuse University
"Elizabeth Kuhns’ readable account chronicles the development of the habit, while pointing to the important witness of the veil in the future.... Bravo."
--Raymond Arroyo, News Director, EWTNews